The State Department said Tuesday the United States will attend two conferences on Iraq that might include dialogue by U.S. officials with counterparts from Iran and Syria.
The Iraqi government is convening the meetings, one at the envoy level in Baghdad next month and the second involving foreign ministers as early as the first half of April.
Bush administration officials insist the two meetings do not represent a change in policy, but they could provide a rare opportunity for direct U.S. dialogue with Iranian and Syrian officials on Iraqi security issues.
The meetings are an initiative of the Iraqi government, which hopes the regional gatherings can help stabilize the country.
The first in Baghdad in mid-March will bring together ambassadors from Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and envoys from the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council.
The second meeting, probably in April, will be at the ministerial level and also involve the G 8 grouping of major industrialized countries thus adding Japan, Italy, Germany and Canada.
The venue has not been announced but U.S. officials say it will probably be held in the Middle East but not Baghdad, where security conditions would preclude such a gathering.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed U.S. participation in the meetings at a Senate hearing Tuesday, noting that Syria and Iran will be invited and that they have a stake in a stable Iraq:
"The violence occurring within the country has a decided impact on Iraq's neighbors. And Iraq's neighbors, as well as the international community, have a clear role to play in supporting the Iraqi government's efforts to promote peace and national
reconciliation within the country."
Despite a chilly relationship, the United States maintains its embassy in Syria but has not had diplomatic relations with Iran in nearly three decades.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not rule out interaction between Secretary Rice and other U.S. officials at the two meetings with their Iranian and Syrian counterparts.
But he said it meant no policy change, and that in the case of Iran, there can be no negotiations until the Tehran government meets international demands to end uranium enrichment:
"You can have a discussion on issues related to Iraq, and that not be a negotiation. So in the conduct of diplomacy you need to have a certain amount of flexibility if you are going to achieve the goals that you want to achieve. Again, the focus of the meeting in Baghdad is going to be on Iraq."
The United States has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq and U.S. military officials have recently presented what they said was evidence that Iranian-made weapons are being used in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.
Both countries deny the allegations.
Spokesman McCormack suggested it would be imprudent for the United States to preclude any discussion at the two regional meetings that might help insure the safety of U.S. forces.